The long answer to the question covers what you would expect: The two men are accomplished, they are using the latest and best technology and equipment, and they have been graced with good luck. But the short answer is: Piccard is Swiss. "Because of his nationality, that of a neutral country, Piccard was able to obtain permission from China to pass over its airspace," says TIME writer-reporter Nadya Labi, who is following the flight. Other balloonists have had to do the aeronautical equivalent of gymnastics to try to get around China, dooming their flight. So why haven't we heard and seen more of this particular mission? Though Piccard comes from a distinguished aeronautical family, neither he nor Jones has the name recognition of a millionaire tycoon balloonist like Richard Branson, says Labi. But don't worry. If Piccard and Jones make it to Africa this weekend, they will.
Fatigue, chills and dwindling fuel supplies forgotten, two men in a balloon high above the Atlantic have the wind at their backs and their eyes firmly on the prize. Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones' balloon, Breitling Orbiter 3, rose gently toward the heavens 100 miles north of Puerto Rico Thursday afternoon. At 32,670 feet they were swept along at a brisk 88 miles an hour by the surging jet stream, which they hope will carry them to Africa and into the history books. The pair set out on March 1 and have already come closer than anyone to realizing the never-achieved goal of going around the world in a balloon. What accounts for their success?